John's Journal
Eagan High School: Where Girls Sports Rule The Autumn8/22/2016
Eagan High School has been a haven for girls athletic success in recent fall seasons, and there are certainly lots of reasons for that. Committed coaches, talented and hard-working athletes, and a supportive community are always important in such matters.

Here’s a quick summary of what has taken place at Eagan…

--The volleyball team has long been one of the state’s strongest programs, winning six big-school state titles since 1997. The Wildcats won Class 3A state championships in 2013 and last season; the 2015 roster included no seniors so Eagan is ranked No. 1 and is a strong favorite to win another title this season.

--In girls soccer, Eagan is the two-time defending state champion in Class 2A, compiling a record of 37-2 over those two seasons.

--The girls tennis team finished fourth at the 2A state tournament last fall and Samantha Nichols, who is now a junior, placed fifth in singles. The team is ranked fourth as the 2016 season begins and Nichols is ranked seventh among 2A individuals.

--In girls swimming, Eagan finished 10th at the 2A state meet a year ago, with the 200 freestyle relay team placing fifth at state.

Eagan’s recent success hasn’t been exclusively a girls domain. The boys swimming and diving team, for example, won its first state championship in 2015, and the 2015 boys track team won two relay titles and Sam Zenner (who anchored both relays) was the 100-meter state champ.

Here are some other points that may be important in trying to assess the climate for girls sports at Eagan: The activities director (Sandra Setter Larsen) is female, as is the principal (Polly Reikowski). Heck, even the superintendent (Jane Berenz) fits the bill.

“Four years ago our head custodian was female, too,” said Setter Larson with a laugh. “We’ve just had a lot of success recently in some of our sports. Soccer and volleyball, for sure. Our boys track team has had success, girls track. We’ve just been very blessed lately. We’ve had a good few years, that’s for sure.”

Girls soccer coach Bulut Ozturk led Lakeville North to three consecutive state tournament appearances before coming to Eagan in 2014. During a break at a recent practice, he said a top-down model is part of the school’s athletic success.

“I think it really comes from the leadership, from our athletic department. Sandy has done an amazing job, and it also comes from our principal, our vice principals, everyone in that office. The entire building is completely supportive and they back the coaches, they give us the freedom, the flexibility and they’re here to support us in whatever we need, whatever it takes for the program to be successful.

“For the coaches who work in this kind of environment, it makes our jobs so much easier. It’s stress-free, and I think that’s one reason you see so much success.”

Eagan also has a tradition of strong support from the student body. The student section known as “The Pit” is a vocal, entertaining presence at many sporting events.

“Our fans in the building had such a fun fall going to all these events,” Setter Larson said. “With tennis, our swimmers, soccer and volleyball there was just so much to do. It was crazy. It was probably a little more of a down year in cross-country in terms of the scoreboard, but they’ve had five years of state tournament entrants. It’s very, very fun for an A.D. to have that experience. That’s a lot of bonus stuff in our jobs. That’s not why we do what we do but it is exciting when it happens.”

Volleyball coach Kathy Gillen, who was inducted into the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014 and was named the Class 3A coach of the year in 2015, said a family atmosphere is important.

“We had a lot of really good chemistry last year and it’s nice to have that back,” she said. “You can already feel that family feeling. It’s a fun group to be around. They work hard, they have fun. It’s a great atmosphere.”

There’s a similar feeling on the 2016 girls soccer team, even though last year’s roster was laden with seniors and there are many holes to fill this year.

“It’s definitely creating a culture right now,” said sophomore Megan Plaschko. “All of our girls sports are being successful and I think it’s making people excited and wanting to come out and see what it’s all about.”

Senior Carly Czaplewski said, “I think the success we’ve had is bringing more girls out here. They want to be part of Eagan sports. It’s a fun thing to be in, it’s a great way to meet people. We have a good time out here.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 10
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 202
Carrie Tollefson: “If You Set The Bar High, You Can Reach It”8/18/2016
Whenever the Summer Olympics roll around, Minnesota track and field fans think of Carrie Tollefson. She was part of Team USA at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, running the 1,500 meters.

Prior to that, Carrie was a star athlete at Dawson-Boyd High School in western Minnesota. Before graduating in 1995, she set a national high school record with five state titles in cross-country along with eight track state titles. She went on to become a five-time NCAA champion at Villanova.

Carrie was the opening speaker Thursday at the Independent Metro Athletic Conference leadership meeting at Breck. The other IMAC schools are Blake, Minnehaha Academy, Mounds Park Academy, Providence Academy, and St. Paul Academy and Summit School. After Carrie spoke to the team captains and other athletes from the six schools, I was honored to be among the presenters at several small-group sessions (I talked about using social media responsibly.)

Carrie, who lives in the Twin Cities with her husband Charlie and their three children, was inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame last year. She is a nationally known advocate for running and fitness (www.carrietollefson.com).

As she began her presentation to approximately 200 student-athletes Thursday, a large video screen behind her displayed the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials in the 1,500. Carrie, going against her coach’s instructions, ran ahead of the pack, was challenged in the final strides but gave a final push to win the race and earn an Olympic berth.

“Dreams do come true,” she said. “If you set the bar high, you can reach it.”

Carrie talked about today’s students being in the same shoes as she was at their age, how team captains need to set a positive example not only for their teammates but for younger kids watching them.

“You are leaders,” she said. “As athletes you deal with the circumstances. These things you learn in athletics will pay off in the future. … One big thing I learned is how to keep coming back. We need to constantly reinvent ourselves, set our goals and get after it.”

She also talked about working with coaches and remaining a positive teammate.

“If you’re not coachable, you won’t be the athlete you can be. Make sure you’re coachable.”

It was a great message from a great athlete.
Olympic Track: Blankenship Advances, Mead Falls (But Advances)8/17/2016
The first round of Olympic track and field qualifying races was a mixed bag for two former MSHSL track and cross-country stars.

Ben Blankenship, a 2007 graduate of Stillwater High School, advanced through the first round of racing in the 1,500 meters on Tuesday and will run in one of two semifinal races Thursday evening in Rio.

The first race of the Summer Olympics wasn’t so kind (originally) to Hassan Mead, who graduated from Minneapolis South in 2007. Competing in the qualifying rounds of the 5,000 meters, Mead was among the leaders when his legs became tangled with Great Britain’s Mo Farah on the home stretch and he fell (pictured). He got up quickly, but finished 13th in his heat and 29th overall.

Mead filed an appeal to the meet officials on the grounds that he did not initiate the contact, but the appeal was denied. Later in the day, however, the decision was reversed and Mead will run in Saturday's Olympic final.

In high school, Blankenship won Class 2A state championships in the 1,600 meters as a junior and senior, was third in the 3,200 as a junior and finished sixth as a junior at the 2A cross-country state meet. Mead was the 2A cross-country champion in 2006, was state runner-up in the 3,200 meters as a senior and placed third in the 3,200 at state as a junior. He also placed sixth in the 1,600 as both a junior and senior. Both runners competed at the University of Minnesota.

Andy Bisek, who wrestled at Chaska High School and placed third in the 2004 state tournament, wrestled in Rio. He won his opening match in the 75-kilogram Greco-Roman competition, but was knocked out of the tournament with a loss in the second round.

Alise Post was a three-time MSHSL gymnastics champion in the vault for St. Cloud Tech. Now she’s a professional BMX bike rider who made it to the Olympics. She competed in time trials Wednesday in Rio and will take part in the semifinal round Friday.

Earlier in the games, Wayzata boys swimming coach David Plummer won a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke. He also earned a gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay, competing in the early rounds.

Hutchinson native Lindsay Whalen, who plays for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, is part of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. They will play France in the semifinals on Thursday.

Here’s a rundown of some other Olympic athletes with Minnesota ties…

Kelly Catlin, Cycling
Catlin was raised in Arden Hills and is a 2014 graduate of Mounds View High School. She is currently a student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in biomedical engineering and Chinese. Catlin competed in the 2015 Pan American Games. At the 2016 World Championships she won a gold medal as part of the team pursuit competition. This is her first time competing in the Olympics.

Garrett Bender, Rugby
Bender was born and raised in Minneapolis. In high school, Bender helped lead Washburn High School to a state rugby title. He played football at St. Cloud State University, before focusing exclusively on rugby. In 2015, Bender was part of the U.S. squad that won a bronze medal at the Pan American Games. This will be his first time competing in the Olympics.

Kathryn Johnson, Rugby
Johnson is a Hopkins native and a 2010 graduate of Hopkins High School. In 2012, she founded a Minneapolis-based rugby club. Johnson was part of the U.S. squad that won a bronze medal at the 2013 World Championship. In 2015, the team won a silver medal at the Pan American Games. The Rio Games will be Johnson’s Olympic debut.

White Bear Lake Football: Bears On The Run At 12:01 8/15/2016
Today is a big day. Big Monday. It’s the first day of practice for MSHSL football, volleyball, cross-country, soccer, girls swimming and girls tennis as the 2016-17 year begins.

Everything is new and optimism is everywhere. All across Minnesota, teams are gathering for the first meetings and opening drills as preparation begins for the new season. How much fun is this?

Technically, practices could begin at one second after midnight. And a few teams didn’t waste that one second. One of them was the football team from White Bear Lake High School, which took the field as the clock turned from Sunday night into Monday morning. And what a scene: there was a student section in the stands, 30 cheerleaders in fine midseason form and about as much enthusiasm as you would expect on Day One.

The football players gathered inside the school a little after 9 p.m. to watch a suitable high school football movie, “When the Game Stands Tall.” They were raring to go well before midnight. They were strapped into their black helmets and ready to roll when one of the assistant coaches said, “We’ve got 25 minutes.” To which a player responded, “So we just wait?” Yes, we just wait.

When it was finally time to hit the field, the Bears tore through a large paper sign created and held by the cheerleaders. It read, “Midnight Madness 2016. This Is Our Time.”

The Bears were on the field for nearly an hour. They did position-specific drills and played some seven-on-seven. The offensive players wore white shirts and the defense wore black.

The Bears went 2-7 last season, losing to eventual Class 6A state champion Osseo 48-21 in their postseason opener.

Head coach Ryan Bartlett is a rare combination: A young age coupled with experience. His first job as an assistant coach came when he was a sophomore in college and coaching at Irondale High School, his alma mater. He became the head coach at Armstrong when he was only 25. He’s now 32 and beginning his eighth year as a head coach, having been at White Bear Lake since 2012.

Bartlett (pictured) has learned a few things along the way.

“I think every year things come up that you don’t always plan for,” he said. “The longer you go, you kind of anticipate things more. The other part of it is that you kind of expect the unexpected. When you’re younger, you think, ‘Holy crap, what do I do?’ Something will come up this week that we didn’t expect.”

Expectations are high for the Bears this fall, based on experience gained a year ago. Six sophomores were in the starting lineup in 2015 – “that’s too many,” Bartlett said -- and lots of other youngsters saw action. But the flip side of that equation is that this year’s team has a bundle of experienced athletes. Another positive sign: There are nearly 200 kids playing football in grades nine through 12 at White Bear Lake.

“Our numbers are really good,” Bartlett said. “We have a lot of experience on offense at the skill spots and a couple linemen. Most of our juniors have played. We have a lot of guys who have played a lot.”

The preseason period will focus on hard work during practices, but the Bears also will have fun. On Friday the players will present impersonations of the coaching staff, which is always a hoot.

“They rehearse and they really do a good job with that,” Bartlett said. “It’s probably the funniest thing we do all year.”

During the second week of practice the players will go bowling as a team, which also sounds like more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Like every other fall sports team in our state, the Bears are ready to go. There’s something special about the first official practice of a season, and Monday morning’s proceedings at White Bear Lake was a grand way to kick off the 2016-17 year.

“We’re excited,” Bartlett said.

Indeed we are. For all our teams, all over Minnesota.

Good luck, everybody.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 1
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 62
Belle Plaine Volleyball: New Look, Same Goals8/15/2016
Returning to action one year after winning a state championship is nothing new. It happens every year in every high school sport. The scenario comes with a twist in 2016 for the Belle Plaine volleyball team, which held its first workout on Monday.

The Tigers captured their first state title by sweeping three state tournament matches by scores of 3-0, 3-1 and 3-0 in Class 2A last November. In March, coach Cassie Koch announced she was stepping down because she was pregnant with her second child.

As a high school player in Belle Plaine from 1999 to 2001, Koch (then Cassie Wolpern) set a national high school record for career kills and was a multiple-year all-state selection. In six years as the Tigers coach, she led them to five conference titles and four trips to state.

So this new seasons begins with new, albeit familiar, co-coaches in Rich Foust and Sara Geller. Foust was the Tigers’ head coach before Koch took over in 2009 and he and Geller have been longtime assistants.

“Any time you win a state championship it’s a phenomenal run,” Foust said before Monday’s practice. “Those kids were good all the way through, in seventh grade, eighth grade and all the way through. You knew that was going to be a good year. You could do different things in practice because they were so skilled. All the pieces were there.”

The Tigers lost four key players to graduation and return a core of four seniors: Mariena Hayden, Elizabeth Johnson, Taylor Kruger and Danielle Taylor (pictured). Hayden, who will play collegiately at Nevada-Las Vegas, is the tallest player at 6 feet. Competing with shorter athletes will be a big test this season.

“One of our concerns is that we’re going to be two to four inches shorter at every position that we’re filling,” Foust said. “We’ve had a nice run here at Belle Plaine of taller-than-average girls. You can do so many things when you have a tall lineup in the front row.”

Geller said with a chuckle, “We could be playing in platform heels.”

Yes, there will be challenges for the Tigers, who are ranked third (behind Kenyon-Wanamingo and Rocori) in the preseason Class 2A coaches poll. But they will be ready.

“I think we still have confidence from last year because we know what it takes to win,” Kruger said. “We still have the drive from last year.”

There’s no discounting the experience gained on the path to a state title. The Tigers’ seniors will bank on that, but there is a gap from the 12th-graders to the rest of the team. The varsity roster currently includes one junior, one sophomore, one freshman and one eighth-grader.

“We’re going to rely on the seniors to transition those younger girls into ‘This is what varsity play looks like,’ ” Geller said.

The season’s first practice was focused on little things: measuring height, arm length and leaping ability, along with speed and quickness drills. Leaping will be important for the undersized Tigers; Hayden is their big thumper at the net but finding others to provide arm-swinging threats is important.

“You know (opponents are) going to probably stick three blockers on Mariena in the front row,” Geller said. “We’re going to have to have other options available.”

That’s where preseason workouts will be vital.

“We have a lot of spots to fill,” said Johnson. “We’ll probably try to mix and move everyone around everywhere. We need some of our younger kids to fight for those spots and fight to be competitive in those spots. I think that’s our biggest challenge right now, bringing us all together and bringing us back to where we were last year.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 2
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 126